international analysis and commentary

European youth on the move, away from the crisis

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From Amsterdam to Berlin, London to Vienna, the increasing presence of young workers, students and interns from the Mediterranean countries is palpable. The economic crisis in Europe, and the austerity cure, has hit the peripheral economies of the South particularly hard. Youth unemployment is rampant. This has led to a “lost” generation of young people in Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece, who see no option but to leave home in search of work.

Before the crisis hit, the biggest story of EU migration was the movement of Eastern workers from the former Warsaw-pact countries (EU8) into the EU15. By 2009, if one includes Romania and Bulgaria (EU2), there were 4.8 million “new” Europeans working in the EU15. The impact was uneven, however, with almost all EU8 migrants choosing to move to the UK or Ireland (70%). In comparison, 80% of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants were in either Spain or Italy.

Many of these migrants were employed in blue-collar jobs: construction, manufacturing, and agriculture. When the crisis hit, these sectors were heavily affected. As the UK fell into recession, the lure of the City of London lost its appeal and the overall number of migrants from the EU8 fell. Moreover, the biggest economy of that area, Poland, continued to grow during the crisis and many, seeing more opportunity and advantages at home, chose to return.

A frequent visitor to London and Dublin would have begun to notice the change in accent of the staff at cafés, restaurants and shops in the two capitals. Where for years a morning cappuccino was served with a Slavic twang, serving staff these days has an increasingly southern flavor. Anecdotal impressions are borne out by the statistics. Of the 700,000 Poles estimated to have arrived in the UK in the years following the 2004 enlargement, it is believed that around 200,000 went home after 2008.

When employment restrictions for “new” Europeans were lifted in 2011, Germany expected an influx of eastern workers. This failed to materialize, however, and most Poles, Slovaks and Lithuanians shunned Germany in favor of their domestic markets. Spanish and Italian migrants to Germany, however, were responsible for a 13% rise in immigration in 2013, which has hit a record 20-year high. The relative stability of the German economy and its shortage of skilled labor – engineers, scientists, nurses etc. – now make the country the second most popular global destination for economic migration after the US, according to a recent OECD study.

The demand for skilled labor is a boon for the unemployed youth of Europe’s southern nations, who are highly educated and often extremely specialized: 89% of people leaving Spain hold a university degree. Spanish press commonly refers to them as the “Einstein generation”. It isn’t also uncommon to see Italian PhDs working as waiters in Edinburgh, or Greek mathematicians brewing coffee in Amsterdam. With few opportunities in their own countries they prefer to go elsewhere: for a generation that came of age with the Erasmus program, it is preferable to work in a shop in Brussels, than be unemployed at home in Barcelona. At the very least, they can improve their language skills in the meantime.

Labor mobility within the European Union is indeed one of the fundamental tenets of the European project. Creating a borderless area of employment was supposed to improve the match between available skills and demand, lead to greater opportunities and ultimately increase overall GDP. Yet seven years into a global economic crisis, with profound effects on the Eurozone, this has not always proven to be so straightforward. If some Spanish engineers are filling job vacancies in Germany’s industrial heartlands, many aim directly for Berlin, a mecca for young Europeans seeking a cool, relatively inexpensive lifestyle.

Attitudes there are not always positive about the new arrivals, who are blamed for pushing up rents and indulging in “benefit tourism”. Precisely with this fear in mind, the German government passed a law in 2012, which barred people who moved to Germany from 14 EU countries, including Greece, Portugal and Spain, from receiving the basic unemployment benefit, known as Hartz IV.The German press has even begun to refer to Mediterranean EU migrants as neue Gastarbeiter, “new guest workers”, a term that harks back to the 1960s and 70s. At that time, as Germany underwent a period of post-war expansion, companies recruited temporary workers from Mediterranean countries, chiefly Italy and Turkey. With deeper EU integration in subsequent years, and the economic success stories of the Iberian economies in the late 80s and 90s, distinctions between northern and southern Europeans began to disappear. Italians in London, for instance, were no longer seen as striving immigrants, but rather equal citizens; voluntary expatriates.

Now, however, the tide is turning. Last year, Belgium revoked the residency rights of 1224 EU nationals, an increase of 300 over the previous year. In the UK too, EU migration has become the center of a fierce debate; PM David Cameron, facing stiff competition from the increasingly popular UK Independence Party (UKIP), is seeking to make continued British membership of the EU conditional on an end to freedom of movement. He is also seeking to curb the access of EU workers to state support, such as unemployment or housing benefit, or tax credits for working parents.

So far, much of the debate across the EU has focused on migrants from Romania and Bulgaria. Transitional controls on free movement of labor, imposed by eight member states, were lifted in January of this year, which led to fears of an influx of migrants from these two countries. In reality, however, roughly 10,000 Romanians and Bulgarians migrated to the UK, a modest increase of 4% on the same period last year. In Belgium, however, Romanian immigration shot up. With 27,000 living in Brussels alone, Romanians have become the fourth largest group of foreign nationals living in the city.

The largest foreign contingent in the city, and by a big margin, is anyway the French – an estimated 300,000. Attracted by the city’s more open job market and good universities, French nationals can be seen in every aspect of life in the city, from executives and restaurateurs in the beaux quartiers to musicians and actors in the Bohemian enclave of St. Gilles. France’s stagnating economy has seen its young people abandon the country in droves.

In the wider scheme of things, though, not many Europeans actually move abroad for work. Despite the effects of the crisis on unemployment rates, only 3.4% of EU-born workers are employed in another member state. In comparison, third-country nationals make up 6.6% of the total EU workforce. It seems that free movement of labor, for all its symbolic significance, remains an elite occupation in Europe.

Moreover, when Europeans do move, increasing numbers are choosing to leave the EU altogether, and try their chances elsewhere. For Spain and Portugal, this often means former colonial possessions, where cultural and linguistic ties are still strong. After many years of being a net recipient of migrants from Latin America, Spain is now a net exporter of people to Argentina, Mexico and Chile. The Portuguese, meanwhile, are flocking to Brazil, Mozambique and Angola, where their skills are highly appreciated in booming resource-rich economies. 

The mass exodus of talented and educated young people conjures up fears of a brain drain in Europe’s Southern periphery. There is a subtle difference between migration patterns before and after the crisis. Then, workers from the “new” European countries saw the European Union as a new opportunity, a chance to earn more money or gain more experience. Now, young people from the Mediterranean leave because they feel they have no choice. No nos vamos, nos echan is the cry of Spain’s exiled youth: “we’re not leaving, they’re kicking us out”.